Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech by Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech

Buying groceries, tracking our health, finding a date: whatever we want to do, odds are that we can now do it online. But few of us ask why all these digital products are designed the way they are. It’s time we change that. Many of the services we rely on are full of oversights, biases, and downright ethical nightmares: Chatbots that harass women. Signup forms that fail an...

Title:Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
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Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech Reviews

  • Jen Naughton

    Technically Wrong demystifies the tech industry and shows the innards of how the information that we freely give is used against us. Well, maybe not against us- but not for us It is primarily utilized for the tech companies to make money and secondly to sell to other companies for profit and our (the consumers) benefit last.

    Sara paints a depressing picture of a woman's career prospects in the tech industry detailing workplace bias and discriminatory practices. Alongside social media practices th

    Technically Wrong demystifies the tech industry and shows the innards of how the information that we freely give is used against us. Well, maybe not against us- but not for us It is primarily utilized for the tech companies to make money and secondly to sell to other companies for profit and our (the consumers) benefit last.

    Sara paints a depressing picture of a woman's career prospects in the tech industry detailing workplace bias and discriminatory practices. Alongside social media practices that ignore people who don't fit into neat boxes, this was a thought provoking read. Pick it up and see if you don't think twice about the next form you fill out and even your social media presence in total.

  • Mira

    I'm so grateful to have received a free ARC of

    ! The 3-star rating was hard to decide and isn't reflective of my full range of feelings. That's why the review that follows will be massively long.

    First off, the minor typos and technical errors, likely due to it being a prerelease copy, created some confusion. The description reads:

    If this refers to computer-generated bots, I either completely missed it or it's nowhere in the book. A shame, since it sou

    I'm so grateful to have received a free ARC of

    ! The 3-star rating was hard to decide and isn't reflective of my full range of feelings. That's why the review that follows will be massively long.

    First off, the minor typos and technical errors, likely due to it being a prerelease copy, created some confusion. The description reads:

    If this refers to computer-generated bots, I either completely missed it or it's nowhere in the book. A shame, since it sounds like it would have been interesting to read about. And the repetitive structure, such as "x, something we'll take a closer look/look more closely at in chapter y", quickly became a cliche.

    Moving on: I like how it combined anecdotal and statistical evidence so that you're not reading a collection of individual stories that could be dismissed as, like those in the tech industry put it, "edge cases," nor a barrage of impersonal numbers that don't provide insight into the inner workings above. Instead of data dumping and concluding that women and black people are underrepresented in STEM (

    , now?) the author fully analyzes why and how these problems arise, leaving readers fully informed and motivated to take action rather than confused and discouraged after reading yet another article on sexism and racism in the tech industry that oh-so-artfully attributes to, ya know, uh, sexism and racism. (I'm looking at you, Huffington Post.) She does go full data dump a few times, but she almost always uses statistics to support her analysis and add true value than stand for themselves.

    It was excellent to read about the success stories such as Slack in the last chapters. I'd have liked for the author to write more and how it built itself up, and more about the other diversity benefits-reaping companies she references. Were they startups that focused on inclusivity from the start; did they turn around a history of FB-Google-Uber-style chaos; what suggestions do they have for other businesses in clearly urgent need of diversity? The reader is most certainly frustrated and needing positivity by the end. It's just as important to learn

    about moving forward as it is to learn about everything that's wrong.

    Actually, "most certainly frustrated" doesn't even consider. The "Meritocracy" chapter was the most laugh-or-cry situation I've come across in a long time. Meritocracy is originally term for England divided into classes based on IQ in a 1958 satirical piece,

    . Since americans missed the point entirely, it's now the bootstraps battle cry of the tech industry:

    And as for learning in depth about moving forward, I'd love to read more from the author about how to succeed in tech as a marginalized person or how to support them as a privileged one. As a web consultant, she must have experience with this. Maybe the main goal of

    is to identify the problem, not solve it. Then, a list of digital/literary resources on succeeding as a gender or racial minority in tech, or supporting change without being in tech oneself, would have been useful to add at the end. Now that the reader is informed of the hot mess that is Silicon Valley's social justice standpoint, they would like to know how to break barriers, perhaps beyond this part of a paragraph of advice:

    Wait, how can congresspeople be relevant to tech? And I'd like to know what exactly these alternate products are; the author professes in the first page her Twitter and Facebook habits, two companies she goes on to epically roast. Come on, I'm sure there's more advice out there, and for the marginalized STEM workers who, as she explains, clearly need it.

    Finally, perhaps this is a result of

    lately, but the inherent nature of capitalism seemed to me a glaring issue in the sections on ads that the author doesn't appear to criticize. Money is the driving force between generating ad revenue, and subsequently behind everything wrong with how Facebook and Google show ads based on gender manipulation. Yes, it's unhelpful to trans people and enforces gender stereotyping, but it's because of their capitalism in the first place. Why

    they be trying to amass ad revenue, even through such shocking practices?

    Despite my criticisms, I'm glad to have read this book and think that everyone interested in social justice absolutely needs to check it out. I knew that the STEM scene suffers from homogeny, but I didn't know how historically ingrained and multifaceted the problem is. It's not as simple as "society is systemically against women and people of color so there's a leaky pipeline in STEM, blah blah." I don't think I'll ever look at tech in the same way again.

  • Jill

    I won this book in a giveaway. I work in the tech sector and was interested in this book because I am leading a digital transformation effort at my job and wanted to make sure i didn't fall into any of these traps. The book was not what I was thinking it was but boy were my eyes opened. I have worked in tech for 35 years. I'm a woman and have experienced the discrimination the book describes early in my career developing software for a utility. While I was raising my kids, I taught computers in

    I won this book in a giveaway. I work in the tech sector and was interested in this book because I am leading a digital transformation effort at my job and wanted to make sure i didn't fall into any of these traps. The book was not what I was thinking it was but boy were my eyes opened. I have worked in tech for 35 years. I'm a woman and have experienced the discrimination the book describes early in my career developing software for a utility. While I was raising my kids, I taught computers in college part-time then returned to the workforce when they were driving. I thought my days of discrimination were behind me but just last year it happened again. I was being groomed for a position to take over for my boss, the IT Director, when he retired. When he announced his retirement date, I was expecting the promotion but I didn't get it. Even though my boss was progressive, the good ol' boy network of the company, choose otherwise and now I report to someone who not only has never managed IT but has never worked in it. So I am training my boss. Toxic!

    I didn't realize that software meant for the general public had such a narrow view of "normal". This book opened my eyes tremendously. I am ashamed of my industry.

    This should be required reading for anyone studying in the tech field in college. I have forwarded this title to the college at which I taught.

  • Tahlia

    Exactly as the title says, this book outlines everything wrong with technology in today's society - namely our most used apps and social networking websites.

    There is so much relevant information in this book - how Facebook and fake news impacted the 2016 US Election and how the quirky-cute approach you often see in apps can have a negative impact on some users.

    However, the most pressing problem is the lack of diversity in big tec

    Exactly as the title says, this book outlines everything wrong with technology in today's society - namely our most used apps and social networking websites.

    There is so much relevant information in this book - how Facebook and fake news impacted the 2016 US Election and how the quirky-cute approach you often see in apps can have a negative impact on some users.

    However, the most pressing problem is the lack of diversity in big tech companies - especially Facebook and Twitter. They may release diversity reports claiming otherwise, but do they ever release solid numbers? No.

    These tech companies are mainly young, white men. And what do these young, white men create? Products for the "average human" - products that reflect themselves.

    For example: 

    Snapchat releasing whitewashing photo filters and filters that embrace "yellow-face" - you know the ones

    Google Photo's algorithm tagging black people as "gorilla"

    Twitter and Facebook's "report abuse" method being very difficult and annoying to put into practice. These white men would never need to use this function. 

    Why is this so?

    Because the people at these companies have not thought to cater to the whole population and when caught out, blame it on these being "extreme cases". Is being black an "extreme case"? Hell no.

    Until tech companies start hiring those in minority groups, new products and releases are going to be designed the exact same way.

    But, these companies use the excuse that there are not enough minorities in the "pipeline" (graduating in this area) to actually hire them - although this may be the case sometimes, it is just another excuse.

    I highly recommend this book - especially for those who feel underrepresented and ignored by big companies. It is very important that people see why these products are designed in such a way and how we change possibly change that.

  • Kathy Reid

    Against a backdrop of increasingly ubiquitous technology, with every online interaction forcing us to expose parts of ourselves, Sara Wachter-Boettcher weaves a challenging narrative with ease. With ease, but not easily. Many of the topics covered are confronting, holding a lens to our internalised "blind spots, biases and outright ethical blunders".

    As Wachter-Boettcher is at pains to highlight

    Against a backdrop of increasingly ubiquitous technology, with every online interaction forcing us to expose parts of ourselves, Sara Wachter-Boettcher weaves a challenging narrative with ease. With ease, but not easily. Many of the topics covered are confronting, holding a lens to our internalised "blind spots, biases and outright ethical blunders".

    As Wachter-Boettcher is at pains to highlight, all of this is not intentional - but the result of a lack of critical evaluation, thought and reflection on the consequences of seemingly minor technical design and development decisions. Over time, these compound to create systemic barriers to technology use and employment - feelings of dissonance for ethnic and gender minorities, increased frustration for those whose characteristics don't fit the personas the product was designed for, the invisibility of role models of diverse races and genders - and reinforcement that technology is the domain of rich, white, young men.

    The examples that frame the narrative are disarming in their simplicity. The high school graduand whose Latino/Caucasian hyphenated surname doesn't fit into the form field. The person of mixed racial heritage who can't understand which one box to check on a form. The person who's gender non-conforming and who doesn't fit into the binary polarisation of 'Male' or 'Female'. Beware, these are not edge cases! The most powerful take-away for me personally from this text is that in design practice, edge cases are not the minority. They exist to make us recognise of the diversity of user base that we design for.

    Think "stress cases" not "edge cases". If your design doesn't cater for stress cases, it's not a good design.

    While we may have technical coding standards, and best practices that help our technical outputs be of high quality, as an industry and as a professional discipline, we have a long way to go in doing the same for user experience outputs. There are a finite number of ways to write a syntactically correct PHP function. Give me 100 form designers, and I will will give you 100 different forms that provide 100 user experiences. And at least some of those 100 users will be left without "delight" - a nebulous buzzword for rating the success (or otherwise) of digital experiences.

    Wachter-Boettcher takes precise aim at another seemingly innocuous technical detail - application defaults - exposing their (at best) benign, and, at times, malignant utilisation to manipulate users into freely submitting their personal data. It is designing not for delight, but for deception.

    "Default settings can be helpful or deceptive, thoughtful or frustrating. But they're never neutral."

    Here the clarion call for action is not aimed at technology developers themselves, but at users, urging us to be more careful, more critical, and more vocal about how applications interact with us.

    Artificial intelligence and big data do not escape scrutiny. Wachter-Boettcher illustrates how algorithms can be inequitable - targeting or ignoring whole cohorts of people, depending on the (unquestioned) assumptions built into machine learning models. Big data is retrospective, but not necessarily predictive. Just because a dataset showed a pattern in the past does not mean that that pattern will hold true in the future. Yet, governments, corporations and other large institutions are basing large policies, and practice areas on algorithms that remain opaque. Yet while responsibility for decision making might be able to be delegated to machines, accountability for how those decisions are made cannot be.

    The parting thought of this book is that good intentions aren't enough. The implications and cascading consequences of seemingly minor design and development decisions need to be thought through, critically evaluated, and handled with grace, dignity and maturity. That will be delightful!

  • Katie Kovalcin

    This book is a must read for anyone who uses technology in their daily lives. Sara's writing is so approachable and demystifies tech with examples of how biases in applications affect all of us. It was refreshing to read such an honest critique of the tech-focused world we live in. I couldn't put it down, I read it in one sitting!

  • Katie

    Must read for anyone who creates tech products - any product, really. Wachter-Boettcher tells story after story of how tech is only as inclusive, useful, and fair as the ideas behind it.

    "Because, no matter how much tech companies talk about algorithms like they’re nothing but advanced math, they always reflect the values of their creators: the programmers and product teams working in tech. And as we’ve seen time and again, the values that tech culture holds aren’t neutral."

    I would love to see m

    Must read for anyone who creates tech products - any product, really. Wachter-Boettcher tells story after story of how tech is only as inclusive, useful, and fair as the ideas behind it.

    "Because, no matter how much tech companies talk about algorithms like they’re nothing but advanced math, they always reflect the values of their creators: the programmers and product teams working in tech. And as we’ve seen time and again, the values that tech culture holds aren’t neutral."

    I would love to see more concrete and specific solutions, but the stories are sticky enough to help me keep inclusivity, privacy, and other needs at the front of my mind when designing and using products.

    My personal biggest takeaways - beware demographic data in personas, look for stress cases instead of edge cases, don't trust Facebook, and read the fine print.

  • Sequoia M

    I really enjoyed this book. I found it to be a chatty, personable approach to the major issues intersecting the tech industry and ethics. Although I was familiar with many of the examples presented, most of them having made headlines and been the subject of hot takes, it was interesting to hear issues fleshed out by women in the industry, as well as a strong argument about what to do. Starting with easy to understand examples of the toxicity, racism, and bias in our technology, and then deepenin

    I really enjoyed this book. I found it to be a chatty, personable approach to the major issues intersecting the tech industry and ethics. Although I was familiar with many of the examples presented, most of them having made headlines and been the subject of hot takes, it was interesting to hear issues fleshed out by women in the industry, as well as a strong argument about what to do. Starting with easy to understand examples of the toxicity, racism, and bias in our technology, and then deepening understanding into how that has been built in, while presenting how this can and must be challenged for everyone's sake. Wachter-Boettcher has written a book that is for the lay person from the perspective of an expert who effortlessly translates complex systems and cultures

    for the outsider, while arguing that we outsiders have a great stake in what happens in the tech industry and with technology itself. She posits that tech is not an untouchable industry, but we can challenge our lawmakers to push back and create regulations and oversight, demand that the individual companies change behaviors and practices, and question their assertions and assumptions why things are the way they are and that they are unchangeable. I started this book resigned to the topic, and finished it motivated and hopeful that a sea change is possible.

  • Emily Finke

    This book doesn't really cover anything new, if you've been following conversations about bias in technology in recent years. However, that really isn't a mark against it, since it's trying to be an introduction to the topic rather than an expansive deep dive. It's a really great primer on the topic, and I'll be recommending it to people who aren't necessarily conversant on inequality in technology, but are curious about where to start. I can't think of any other book that would suit that purpos

    This book doesn't really cover anything new, if you've been following conversations about bias in technology in recent years. However, that really isn't a mark against it, since it's trying to be an introduction to the topic rather than an expansive deep dive. It's a really great primer on the topic, and I'll be recommending it to people who aren't necessarily conversant on inequality in technology, but are curious about where to start. I can't think of any other book that would suit that purpose quite as well.

  • Rachel

    I want to qualify my rating of this book: If you haven’t previously thought about sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination in the tech industry, this is a five-star recommendation. However, as someone who regularly reads about this topic and pays attention to tech news, I encountered very little new information in this book. It was also a bit disappointing to see so much focus on recent big news stories (e.g. the Google Photos categorization fail, Uber sexism and spying, Facebook year in

    I want to qualify my rating of this book: If you haven’t previously thought about sexism, racism, or other forms of discrimination in the tech industry, this is a five-star recommendation. However, as someone who regularly reads about this topic and pays attention to tech news, I encountered very little new information in this book. It was also a bit disappointing to see so much focus on recent big news stories (e.g. the Google Photos categorization fail, Uber sexism and spying, Facebook year in review) rather than a wider range of companies and more in-depth looks at what went wrong, how it happened, and how companies are or could be doing things differently. So I wasn’t blown away by the book, but it holds valuable information for some folks and I just might be the wrong audience.

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